Autonomy, security, identity: Beautiful words, worrying ties in the electronic world

MONTRÉAL, Canada

What does identity have to do with security? How can we guarantee secure electronic user identification without compromising privacy? Why do airport officials need to know about your DNA when they are actually looking to see if you carry a bomb? The seventeenth edition of the Computer, Freedom and Privacy (CFP) conference held in Montréal, Canada, from May 1 to 4 2007, brought together many experts in order to tackle these questions.

What does identity have to do with security? How can we guarantee secure electronic user identification without compromising privacy? Why do airport officials need to know about your DNA when they are actually looking to see if you carry a bomb?

These are questions that affect everyone on the face of the earth. Many might not know this or are too busy dealing with other less ‘virtual’ problems of everyday life. The seventeenth edition of the Computer, Freedom and Privacy (CFP) conference held in Montréal, Canada, from May 1 to 4 2007, brought together many experts in order to tackle these questions. Besides key representatives from government, education, non-profit organisations, business, the media, consumer groups, security and Wikipedia ">hacker communities.

Since 1991, when CFP’s first edition took place in San Francisco, United States, the Fuente: TechSoup Glossary y GenderIT.org ">internet

has developed and changed very fast and in such ways that many could have never imagined even a few months back… or wait a minute! Maybe not.

One good example of this ‘not-always-unforeseeable’ development of the electronic world and its impact on humans came from a panelist attending the sixth edition of CFP in 1996, Pat Cadigan. She, along with three other science fiction writers was asked to share their impressions at the end of CFP96. Cadigan envisioned “a time when we will be taxed at the super-market checkout for risks to your health incurred by certain items." She also foresaw a situation that showed how we confuse information with knowledge, and the mistaken notion that improved surveillance in cyberspace can provide greater protection against terrorism. A very timely subject of discussion eleven years later it seems.

Check where we are at nowadays: There are a whole bunch of electronic methods in place to capture information about consumers, users and even patients. Today, in many societies, we deal with an electronic health record (EHR), e-government, e-commerce, radio frequency identification (RFID), social networking – and all essentially rely on the ability to manage, provision, and authenticate the "identities" of people, devices and processes. The question lays in the implications of these methods to the average person. How do we deal with the complexity of modern life?

Since the bombing events of the World Trade Center in New York in 2001, citizens from developed countries, especially North Americans, have been asked to give up a bit of their liberty, a part of their privacy, in the greater interests of safety, it was argued. The global war against terrorism has been used as the best excuse to multiply state control over access to telecommunication information, financial transactions, geo-positioning information, obligatory data retention, increasing video-surveillance, extended authentication and identification, and passenger screening. And because this is an ‘international’ war on terror, the agreements made among consenting countries to share data and cooperate with each other on the enforcement, further prevent sharing the information with the citizens of those countries. 

There has never been so much public policy made at the international level by career public officials, rather than by elected officials, in the world history. How can democracies strive when these kinds of transnational agreements guarantee state surveillance of their own citizens? Can a democratic state exercise autonomy in this environment? What is the actual impact on people’s civil liberties and freedom?

Attending the seventeenth edition of the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference was a great opportunity to think through all of these matters. It was also scaring at times, reassuring at other times, especially when one sees many great brains that truly believe we are not facing a lost cause.

As said Ian Peter, “necessity is the mother of invention, and whenever we really need something, humans will find a way to have it.” The electronic world can become a place where we deal with plain honesty, full of respect for differences and freedom of expression, mind and soul. But resistance to state control and attacks on civil liberties will have to be increasingly beefed up in that ideal electronic world.


Computers, Freedom and Privacy
Ian Peter

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